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Positions (and accompanying titles) are reflective of the rigid, hierarchical, fear-ridden and overly centralized organizations that [irrespective of the organization and by themselves] both set-up and reinforce non-adaptive behavior.
What if we did away with traditional positions (and related titles) and replaced them with role names that reflected the value-added contribution of the individual. Similar to a soccer team (or any sports team) where there individuals have specific roles [e.g. right-forward, center-midfield, etc.] each with a unique and value added contribution to make to the team’s success.
Would a seemingly simple change in the way we define ourselves in organizations change behavior? If the CEO were the Head Coach and HR Mangers were People Support and we used roles names like inventor, coder, solver, performer or even bolder descriptors such as story teller, talent freak, or specialist would the hierarchical structure [and its supporting characteristics: fear, centralization, short-term thinking etc.] naturally fall away? Would people identify more with [and be compelled to] behave in ways that were consistent to their roles? I think so.
We have a long standing history with hierarchies which naturally give rise to the command and control style that no longer fits as organizations seek to become adaptive. From the moment we are born the hierarchy is present (at first in the child/parent relationship this is necessary to guide development). It is reinforced in our education systems and then finally at work. Titles that reflect position [rank] naturally create patterns of behavior (for all actors in the system) regardless of where one falls in the hierarchy. Those at the top (the 'Tellers') are compelled (and expected) to have the answers, solve the problems, give explicit direction, reward and punish. Those at the bottom (the 'Askers') are compelled (and expected) to do what they are told, not ask too many questions or make too many suggestions, get permission first, wait to be told, seek reward from above. Everyone in-between responds in the same fashion telling those below them and asking those above them. We have been conditioned since birth to behave in a hierarchical manner. So much so that we've embedded it in the titles we assign people in organizations which reflect the person's position (i.e. rank/status -- Director, VP, SVP) and not their role (the value they add or the contribution they make to the team).
Similarly if we look at the evolution of leadership we see some interesting transitions. Leadership was originally sought from the elders of tribes, and Age was the basis of leadership. A few centuries ago, that paradigm yielded to Ancestry as the basis of leadership. Leadership passed from a King to his son and so on. In the Managerial revolution, leadership started being decided on the basis of Assignment. The power and responsibility came with the position you were assigned. Titles needed to convey the level of power associated with the assignment and position-based titles did exactly that. As a direct outgrowth of an era gone by they were designed to create and reinforce the management model of that time [command and control].
More recently however, there is enough evidence to suggest that leadership is now moving to people with Ability-to-engage-others. With the flattening out of the world, Ability is trumping the previous three. There is wide spread agreement that the command and control model no longer works. Change happens too quickly, technology redefines what is possible -- overnight and the amount of information is growing far faster than is comprehendible. Senior leaders in businesses around the world are looking for ways to stay relevant and understand they must learn how to adapt in harmony with the rate of change. They see collaboration and innovation as key to their survival. Senior leaders are beginning to both acknowledge the need to move away from the command and control model and embrace the concepts of adaptability.
What they cannot yet see are the subtle cultural norms that are reinforcing the old model and are getting in the way of a new model. Position-based titles are a not only a manifestation of the power assigned them but also the domains (organizational turf) in which they execute their power. This relationship to structure can lead to conditions that freeze the organization as opposed to enabling it to be fluid, agile, and responsive. There is a natural sense of 'ownership' (defend, protect, etc.) when a position description relates to a patch and power assigned to that patch.
Cultural norms are supported by values and beliefs that are usually below the level of consciousness. Not that we are completely unaware of them, we just don’t actively consider them. We behave consistently with these values and beliefs without ever questioning what’s driving the behavior. Position-based titles and job descriptions make changing a command-and-control model difficult because of the strong ties and relationship to the associated structure/patches and power.
So how does an organization break free of the command-and-control culture? Switching from Position (assignment) to Role (ability) makes immense sense in this context.
If people were value and role oriented (ability) with role-based titles then the patch/power syndrome (assignment) is less likely to occur and the organization could change far more easily. Role-based titles do not share the history or ties to the command-and-control model and are naturally more adaptive. People can easily continue to perform their role in a new environment or change their role without consideration of power or patch. They would tend to think less about structure, more about knowledge flow and organize around delivery teams – structured to deliver value to specific customers and markets.
Switching to role-based titles that reflect the value and ability (skill/ expertise) needed from the individual in that role from position-based titles (i.e. director, VP, SVP) that reflect the power one has been assigned and the patch one owns disconnects the deeply embedded hierarchal behaviors and expectations.
Similar to the role-based titles of members of a sports team (1st base, pitcher, or forward, goalie), business team member titles will reflect what they do, not what rank they hold. If applied to employees in a call center, the agent may be a customer advocate; supervisor may be floor coach. Other titles could include trainer, efficacy associate, head coach, team statistician, sense maker, curator, problem solver, coordinator, motivator, futurist, historian, revolutionary, entrepreneur, sage, connector, relator, provocateur, questioner, teacher, reporter, catalyst, facilitator etc. The list of possible role tiles is endless and teams can select names that make the most sense. Over time, these role-based titles will be calibrated across organizations worldwide just as position-based titles have been.
This structure and role-based titles create a natural resistance to hierarchical behavior and force us to respond to the role and not the rank. It eliminates the tell-ask relationship as it no longer make sense. The goalie doesn't need (and would never think) to ask permission to make a play to prevent a goal. In the same way the customer advocate does not need to ask permission to best serve the customer.
It sets up new expectations. The customer advocate is expected to do what it takes to meet customer needs and the floor coach is expected to build individual competence and collective capability to do so. It shifts the burden for doing the job well to the individuals in each role. It changes the types of questions being asked. Employees at all levels will stop asking for permission and waiting to be told and instead ask for feedback or coaching to improve their ability to perform.
This changes everything. We no longer have a team or 15 all vying for the bosses job because promotion (higher rank) is the only way to acknowledge good performance. Just as members of a football team are not all vying to be the quarterback, instead they are all vying to be great in their unique and value-adding roles.
The energy shifts from ‘managing the boss’ perception’ to ‘doing a great job’. Employees are encouraged to focus on specialization and to play to their strengths. There is a much clearer line of accountability rather than a whole lot of people being jointly responsible for a whole lot of things.
People who have the leadership / power hate to give it up! So the biggest challenge is going to come from those who have been ‘Assigned’ leadership by a Title or Position they have.
Both sides need attention as pressure exists from both the tellers and the askers to not change (regardless of how much they espouse a desire to change) because there is power in telling (reinforced by the connection between power and self-worth) and absolution in asking (reinforced by fear and the consequences of making a mistake if the decision is yours to make).
It is difficult to change because it requires very deliberate (and uncomfortable -- increase vulnerability) simultaneous behavioral changes by everyone in the hierarchy. Trying to change hierarchical behavior, i.e. command and control, without fundamentally changing the way work-groups are structured is pointless.
There are also several environmental factors to consider (and adjust) before making these changes. Compensation systems – that reward with Position promotions as the primary means for advancement. These systems could be augmented to include levels of expertise / degree of contribution/ impact on org or team as means for advancement. Degrees of knowledge, by role, based on the needs of the team could replace rating and ranking session. This no longer requires organizations to force a specific distribution (bell-curve) where it is not needed and does’t naturally exist –e.g.If there are 15 customer advocates who consistently exceed expectations they may all be master advocates.
To overcome these challenges, we must clearly define the roles, the contribution needed from each role and how that influences the teams ability to deliver and create value,. It is also necessary to help employees understand their natural strengths, their skills, how they show up and why that matters. Once this has been done the team structure and title changes can be introduced and implemented.
This idea seems like a simple one but because of the associated undercurrent and strong embedded behavioral responses to titles, organizations should start slowly by allowing teams to choose role-based titles alongside their position-based titles and encourage them to use the role-based titles exclusively within their teams.
As part of a deliberate effort to become more agile and adaptive, organizations should include an effort to retitle their positions and linked to the development of a team purpose. When teams come together to define their purpose (mission/vision) they could add the following steps once they have defined their purpose:
1) What must we be great at (to determine core competencies)
2) How should we be organized to best deliver value to our customer (to define structure and positions)
3) What is the value added contribution of each position (to determine role/ ability)
4) What title best describes the role and ability of the employee
At this point have the teams look at the role-based titles they have been using and rationalize as titles are selected. The previous exposure and use of the titles, even as secondary titles will ease the transition and to varying degrees the hierarchical behavioral responses to the position-based titles will have diminished.